Comic history

"Brenda Starr, Reporter" by Dalia "Dale" Messick, published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 23, 1950, is on display at Lebanon Valley College's "Comics Unstripped" until Oct. 21.

Opening up your Sunday newspaper to read the comics has never been commonly thought to be an artistic or cultural exploration. Yet what has often been dismissed as a low-brow art form holds rich historic roots, which have influenced generations.

The Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery at Lebanon Valley College has assembled “Comics Unstripped,” an exploration of comic art and its impact on society. Drawing from an impressive collection of vintage American comic art, “Comics Unstripped” joins the burgeoning wave of research on this previously overlooked mass medium.

The exhibition, incorporating research from a spring 2018 course on comic art, examines the historical development of comics as an art form and explores comics as a respected form of visual communication. “Comics Unstripped” investigates the comic art medium as a critical aspect of the historical, cultural and artistic record of the United States from 1890 to the present.

Though the origins of the comic art form can be traced to the earliest storytelling by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the published form of comic art emerged in the 1860s. They communicated to the newly urbanized masses through pictures and simple words, religious themes, moral messages and humorous depictions of domestic life.

In several of the comics representing the pre-World War II era, themes and attitudes conveyed are rife with racist, sexist and cultural insensitivity, reflecting the all-too-common attitudes of the times. Fortunately, though as times have moved on, comics have continued to reflect the more enlightened attitudes that have emerged through society.

The exhibition makes very clear that there is not one comprehensive definition of the comic form. There are many examples of different types of comics as one can see represented, the concept of sequential panels, the use of caricature and exaggeration, as well as visual simplification; all of which aid in storytelling.

The presence of devices such as speech and thought balloons and text-images (such as “BANG!”) to convey the storylines as well as the action, are also seen as unique to the comic.

The styles of the individual artists have also made the “look” of certain comics iconic. The simple line drawings of Tom Wilson’s “Ziggy” make every panel recognizable. Similarly, the melodramatic serial of “Brenda Starr” by Dalia “Dale” Messick used many cinematic tools to set the comic apart from others of the time.

Prevailing contemporary attitudes, conventions and ideals have indeed shaped comics throughout the years. Just as once it was common to see language filled with discriminatory language and bias, it has been replaced with attitudes of empowerment and equality. On view are modern “working girls” that emerged during the 1920s as central characters in comics such as “Winnie Winkle” and “Fritzi Ritz,” as well as her well-known niece “Nancy.”

The idealized life of a bunch of Riverdale teenagers is seen in John L. Goldwater’s “Archie Comics,” a group who emerged in 1941, but has become so enduring, it continues to the present, all the while changing and evolving to reflect present day points of view and storylines.

As the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s came to fore, comics began to reflect the anti-establishment ethos in content and design. The mocking and sophomoric humor of “Mad Magazine” is represented in “Comics Unstripped” to illustrate the power of irreverent humor to hold a mirror to society. A publication designed to mock both sides of the ideological spectrum, “Mad Magazine” has become a hallmark of political and cultural satire.

“Comics Unstripped” is a full circle tribute to an art form whose time for recognition is due. This expertly curated exhibition has rightfully joined other scholarly examinations in increasing the awareness of the importance of comics in its historical context and artistic importance.

“Comics Unstripped” is on display until Oct. 21 at the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery on Lebanon Valley College campus, West Church Street and North White Oak Street in Annville. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 1 to 4:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, as well as by appointment for groups. Please contact the Gallery at 717-867-6445 or gallery@lvc.edu for more information.

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Joseph George holds a degree in history and art history from Dickinson College. He and his wife, Barrie Ann have spent much over 25 years together traveling and visiting art galleries locally and throughout the world. They have been writing about the local art scene for five years. Their tastes range from fine art to street art.